When Birmingham, Alabama raised its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour last year, it offered a ray of hope to Antoin Adams.
A 23-year-old worker at Hardee’s, Adams struggles to get by on $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum.
“Life on $7.25 is impossible,” said Adams, adding that he often asks himself: “Do I have money for dinner, or should I just go without food in order to afford treatment for my chronic asthma?”
With the raise, Adams thought, he’d have an easier time staying afloat, and might one day even be able to think about going to college to become a computer technician.
That dream died in February. Just days before the Birmingham measure was set to go into effect, Alabama Republicans passed a law, known as HB 174, that barred cities from hiking their minimum wages. Just like that, Adams’s expected raise—and that of 40,000 other predominantly black low-wage workers in Birmingham—was canceled.
Now Adams is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court that accuses Alabama of illegal racial discrimination in blocking Birmingham’s minimum wage increase. The suit claims HB 174 was a product of “racial animus” and that it violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s the latest chapter in the long history of Alabama, where a white legislature overrides the will of minority communities,” said Richard Ruoco, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “It was simply time to take a stand.”
Birmingham’s raise represented a rare victory in the South for the nationwide movement to boost pay for low-wage workers—many of whom are young minorities who toil in the fast-food industry. Elsewhere, the campaign has been far more successful: California and New York recently mandated a $15 an hour wage, to be phased in gradually over the next few years.
Alabama’s move to block Birmingham's raise was part of a national trend. In recent years, mostly Republican-controlled states have passed laws that preempt progressive local legislation on a range of issues, from paid sick leave to regulating fracking—a strategy some activists call an assault on local democracy.
Backers of HB 174 argued that businesses in the state need a uniform minimum wage, rather than having to play by different rules in different cities. But, advocates for low-wage workers note, state Republicans also have opposed efforts by Democratic lawmakers to raise the state’s minimum wage. Indeed, Alabama is one of just five states without its own minimum wage, meaning the $7.25 federal minimum applies.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, in which Alabama’s NAACP chapter is also a plaintiff, alleges racial discrimination in two ways. First, it claims, the state’s authority to override local control on wage and other issues derives from Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, which explicitly aimed to disenfranchise blacks and impose segregation. (“What is it that we want to do?” asked the president of the Constitutional Convention, John Knox, at the outset of the proceedings. “Why it is, within the limits imposed by the federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”) “Such provisions that grant exclusive authority to the State legislature to override any and all local ordinances are vestiges of race discrimination," the suit argues, "and HB 174 disproportionately impacts African American residents who live and work in the City of Birmingham."
Second, the suit alleges racial discrimination on the part of today’s Republican lawmakers who passed HB 174. It cites the fact that the law was passed through the legislature—using unusual legislative procedures—and signed by the governor in less than two weeks, a remarkably fast timeline that appears to have been intended to ensure it went into effect before Birmingham’s raise. It also notes that the Birmingham raise was passed by a majority black city council and would have disproportionately benefited blacks.
The suit names Governor Robert Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange, both Republicans, as defendants. Bentley is currently at risk of being impeached by lawmakers after evidence emerged that the married chief executive exchanged racy texts with a top aide.
Bentley’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.